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Sulfide mining's jobs are temporary, but its pollution will stay in our waterways

paddler
Photo by Jacob S. Pool
Without exaggeration, we feel that the Boundary Waters enhances our humanness.

Like many Minnesotans, we’ve been camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) every summer for years, several of us for a quarter century or more. Some of us used to live in the Arrowhead, but all of us share a certain unspoken feeling heading north, when deciduous turns to boreal. We appreciate that our great state can still offer us a place where you can catch a fish, and drink the water – right out of the side of a canoe! (A lotta guys don’t favor the exclamation point. Or sarcasm. But it hasn’t escaped our attention that we can no longer do either of these things in the Twin Cities, which we think merits an exception.)

Without exaggeration, we feel that the Boundary Waters enhances our humanness. The question that challenges us today is: How many places like it do we need? How many are left?

In their excellent July 7 letter to the International Joint Commission regarding sulfide mines, the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters and Anglers express their opposition to proposed sulfide mine projects in Northern Minnesota, which would leach sulfuric acid into waterways, the lifeblood of Northern Minnesota’s economy, for up to 2,000 years. The group points out, correctly, that the jobs are temporary, the bulk of the profits will flow elsewhere, and the “toxic legacy of damaged waterways” will remain with us here, in Minnesota.

We thank the Hunters and Anglers for their letter, and couldn’t agree more. It passes our understanding that we would threaten this environment at all – let alone at the demand and benefit of foreign companies and mostly non-local investors. It seems to us that the value of existing jobs and clean land and water vastly outweigh the prospect of a few temporary jobs. Since when do we fancy ourselves a Banana Republic, accepting pennies on the dollar from outsiders and colonizers? Since when do we take their word for it?

We understand and celebrate the pride of the Arrowhead, and we respect the special right of Northern Minnesotans to speak first about this part of the state. But this place stays with us also, even when we are 200 miles away. We hope these words are received as an act of solidarity.

We have reached a crossroads. We’ve always needed jobs. We’ve always needed to eat, and drink. But we question the wisdom of carrying on as we are. “They” want pipelines, and sulfide mines, and frac sand mines, in our state. They will promise a few temporary jobs, maybe a tiny share of the profits, but they cannot promise that our Minnesota — our food, communities, schools, and water — won’t change forever.

We respectfully stand with those saying no. And importantly, we believe this stance should include doing right by those communities in need of economic development. There has to be a better way for Minnesota.

JT Haines of St. Paul; Lee Markell, Eagan; Dylan Nau, New Brighton; and Ijaz Osman, Elk River, submitted this commentary on behalf of the Bound Hounds group, which also includes signers Lindsay Dean, St. Paul; Tommy Haines, Iowa City; Thom Haines, Eden Prairie; Joe Krekeler, Minneapolis; Emily Little, Hopkins; Brent Livingood, Hopkins; Nate Markell, Minneapolis; Jodi Monson, Minneapolis, Jacob Pool, Minneapolis, Aaron Stoehr, Minneapolis, and Erin Todd, Rochester.

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If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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Comments (4)

Links to the draft EIS and the EPA report

would be helpful, given the lack of factual information in this piece and the following statements in the letter referred to above:

And PolyMet says acid-mine drainage (AMD) will occur at its proposed Hoyt Lakes mine. The company’s draft Environmental Impact Statement stated that:
•“Water leaching from the waste rock piles is expected to be contaminated for up to 2,000 years;”
•“The West Mine Pit will overflow at Mine Year 65 (45 years after expected mine closure), contaminating the adjacent Partridge River with sulfates and heavy metals;”
•“Due to structural instability, the tailings basin has a ‘low margin of safety.’”

Adding insult to injury, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave PolyMet’s sulfide mining proposal a failing grade, a ranking of “environmentally unsatisfactory (and) inadequate.” This is a ranking the EPA gives less than 1 percent of the time to projects like this. Specifically, the EPA said:
•“All waste rock at the site is acid generating, and acidic water … will mobilize metals and sulfates, leaching them into groundwater and surface water;”
•“The draft Environmental Impact Statement did not provide information on financial assurance;”
•“The project will result in unacceptable long-term water quality impacts … increasing mercury loadings into the Lake Superior watershed;”
•“The proposed approaches to manage acid generation are untested or unproven at the proposed scale;” and
•“This project may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts … to the Lake Superior watershed and the Great Lakes basin.”

The implication of this sort

The implication of this sort of argument is that the couple of mines proposed will ruin "northern Minnesota".

The actual impacted areas, in a worst-worst-case scenario, are a very small percent of land and waters in localized areas around the projects--outside of the BWCA. Otherwise, if entire geographic regions were ruined by a few mines mines, states like Colorado would be a depopulated waste-land.

If this group were truly concerned about about ruining ALL of northern Minnesota, they and their site would be heavily oriented to fighting global climate change, mercury pollution from coal-fired plants, and the spread of non-native invasive species. These have and will continue to change ALL of northern Minnesota.

And oddly enough, the much vaunted tourism economy of the northern part of the state has guaranteed that there is ticky-tack almost everywhere, and virtually every foot of lakeshore is claimed by someone building a woodsy McMansion. Hmmm, exurban glop everywhere, (with growing demands for roads, services, power, water, sewer, retail and restaurants), or a few mines, which is worse? Which has more impact on more of "northern Minnesota"?

And, as for jobs, the jobs associated with tourism and camping are mainly minimum wage, part-time jobs. Without the back-bone of mining in northern Minnesota it would be a very much poorer area with few developed resources. The only reason why people can afford to build a woodsy McMansion, or spend a week or two on vacation in northern Minnesota is generally because they make their big bucks elsewhere. They can afford to hire a cleaner or a yard person up north, but what do they pay them?

It's not as simple as it seems.

Response to Neal

Unfortunately, the mining companies are not just talking about a couple of small sulfide mines. They are talking about the entire Duluth Complex, the mineralization that extends from Duluth across the Arrowhead region, under what is now Superior National Forest, and even dipping under the Boundary Waters. This mineralization contains less than 1% metals, thus leaving behind a landscape of 99% waste rock, leaching heavy metals and acid mine drainage into our watersheds, into perpetuity.

Mining itself contributes to climate change and mercury deposition. Digging out, blasting, crushing, and grinding this amount of rock requires heavy equipment, diesel fuel, and huge amounts of electricity. The taconite industry has been powered by coal; both the taconite mining process and the coal fired power plants spew mercury into our air. In addition, sulfates leach from the tailings basins, resulting in the methylation of mercury and its accumulation within the food chain. Mining also means the loss of forests and wetlands, impacting the microclimate and exacerbating the effects of a warming climate. Disturbed land is also open to invasive species.

As a life long resident of the Iron Range, I continue to wonder why we are not the richest region of the state, rather than an area known for its poverty. Millions, if not billions, of dollars and tons of ore are being exported from this area. And political sentiment now wants us to give up the remaining wilderness heritage of the state, trading off a small number of jobs so that a large amount of machinery can destroy our environment, while the metals will be shipped abroad.

I agree with the article's authors--we need to find better options for community and economic development.

Do you really believe that

Do you really believe that there is a serious proposal to turn the entire "Duluth complex" into a mine, "leaving a landscape of 99% waste rock"?

The largest cause of climate change and invasive species and mercury poisoning is not mining, it is people who insist on living in places that are not necessarily hospitable to human habitation, but yet they must have heat, food, water, sewage, air conditioning, roads, shopping malls and of the other accoutrements and recreation toys of modern life brought to their woodsy McMansion.

Consider this: If it isn't grown, it is mined. Those are the only two ways of getting what modern life requires.

If you wonder at poverty in northern Minnesota--were you better off financially when the mines were closed? The poorest countries in the world are the tourism-based economies. Not much wide-spread wealth in having nation of maids and waiters.